Unlikely Cyber-Café Brings Internet to Poverty-Stricken Haiti

1998 Cox News Service

PETIONVILLE, Haiti -- Think cafe. Think trendy. Think computers. Think people with a penchant for khakis and loafers who live to surf the Internet.

Starring on the menu: espresso and cappuccino, of course.

What is this, Seattle? No, it's a cyber-cafe -- and it's located in Haiti.

The aptly-named Computer World is sandwiched between a pizza parlor and a gas station in this tiny suburb, high on a mountainside overlooking -- but distanced from -- the squalor and grime of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.

It's an understatement to say that the business looks keenly out of place in this country, where phone and electric service is spotty, and most people battle with the daily dilemmas of finding safe water and decent sanitation.

But, clearly, Computer World is a hit.

Nearly a dozen terminals with Internet access line the walls inside this nondescript, two-story building, which is air-conditioned -- a rarity here -- and decorated with space age-style wallpaper covered with colorful drawings of the solar system.

The building includes a full-service coffee bar, as well as a store, where everything from mouse pads to fax machines -- all imported from discount chains in Miami -- is sold.

On a recent weekday, the building was crowded with well-heeled patrons who sent e-mail on computers that might cost the average Haitian more than five years of their income.

``I can e-mail my friends back in the United States so I don't have to send a letter, which would take 15 days to get there,'' said Nadine Seide, 28. ``I also use the computer to do research on all of the graduate schools in the United States, where I plan to study one day.''

Seide recently graduated from college here, but has never owned a computer and, even if she did, she couldn't access the Internet since the phone at her house hasn't worked in six months.

Like Seide, many customers linger for hours at Computer World, which has a cozy, living-room atmosphere, as part of a ritual that has become as essential to the day's routine as combing hair.

They sip java, play games on CD-ROM, nosh on chicken nuggets, and catch up with old friends.

For sure, Computer World's not the domain of Everyman, but is clearly geared toward Haiti's moneyed elite and expatriate community.

Credit for Computer World's success goes to Jonas Guillaume, an ambitious entrepreneur who opened the cyber-cafe in July 1997.

And he'll take the credit with an American-style smile, proud of opening the high-tech haven in such a low-tech environment.

``I was born in Haiti and I just wanted to give something back by helping people,'' said Guillaume, 32, who studied computer science at the University of Montreal before living a few years in Miami. ``And the people are just so happy to have something like this available to them.''

As the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, Haiti is generally associated with malnutrition, not technology.

A majority of the population can't read or write, which explains why, when computer networks were shrinking time and space in the developed world, most folks here had never even heard of an information superhighway.

Today, only some 5,000 Haitians have access to the Internet through four main servers available through private companies.

Still, there are some fledgling efforts underway to expand the use of computers.

The Haitian government is currently developing an intranet to connect their various ministries, which has been implemented across corporate America at a feverish pace.

And several computer schools have been opened in Port-au-Prince, teaching crowded classrooms everything from Lotus to Microsoft.

``Clearly people are starting to understand that the computer is the way of the future and that they will be left behind if they don't know technology,'' said Michelle Karshan, a spokeswoman for Haitian President Rene Preval.

In recent years, widespread use of the Internet has been hampered by the phone service provided by Teleco, Haiti's aging monopoly, which is so poor that there are fewer than 80,000 phone lines to serve 8 million people.

Many of the more than 100,000 people currently waiting for phone service have been waiting for years.

And those lucky enough to already have phone service may lose their line for months after a big rain.

Service costs $10 a month in a nation where the average per-capita income is $250.

Under the country's economic reform program, Teleco is supposed to pass to private hands.

But all such deals need the prime minster's signature and the former prime minister, Rosny Smarth, resigned in June 1997 and has yet to be replaced.

``There's a political impasse that's going to continue to hold up investment and privatization,'' said Ernest Preeg, U.S.ambassador to Haiti from 1981 to 1983.

That hasn't stopped Computer World, which avoids Teleco's ground-based phone lines by using a router that picks up satellite signals to make connections.

Computer World also uses a generator and battery-powered inverter to avoid the common power outages plaguing the country.

All of this has contributed to the cyber-cafe's rising popularity.

At Computer World, Guillaume has sold memberships to more than 120 people for about $35 a month, for which they receive an e-mail address and mailbox, plus 20 hours of Internet access.

Non-members can access the Internet for about $5 an hour.

He also offers six-week training classes, at a cost of about $300, for Internet novices.

And there are plenty of them.

Even many professionals here, such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers, know almost nothing about surfing the World Wide Web.

``I have people come in from the university asking me what the Internet is and about how to use it, and I'm happy to be able to teach them,'' Guillaume said.

That's good news for people like Ida Morel, a nurse's aide eager to learn how to use computers to do medical research.

``Computers are not something we grow up with here, so having Computer World is great,'' she said. ``I can come in, experiment with computers, ask questions and get all the help I need.''


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